Federal Chest of Drawers


Furniture in the 13 colonies mostly followed styles and fashions from abroad. Even after becoming an independent nation separate from England, we continued to work with designs from overseas. That, however, had a lot to do with the Masters and Journeymen who shipped across to the new nation.

During the period after the war furniture transitioned from the Chippendale designs to those influenced by Adam, Hepplewhite and Sheraton. Slipping away were the Rococo characteristics – curved and asymmetrical forms and elaborate carvings. Growing in popularity were pieces with ancient Greek and Roman designs with inlay made from contrasting woods.

(Fig. 1) Federal chests, including this Hepplewhite design, featured a variety of fronts from straight to bowed or swelled. Courtesy of the Chipstone Collection.

Chests of drawers from the Federal period – also called bureaus – were available with straight fronts, and some still had shaped fronts. The undulating serpentine front faded slightly. More common were chests with a swelled or bowed front. (Fig. 1) Block-front designs were all but gone.

Another chest feature that made significant changes during the Federal period were feet. A French foot, which curved outward at the floor, was often found on Hepplewhite designs. As we transitioned into furniture inspired by Thomas Sheraton, many of the feet were turned and shaped with inlay or bead designs. Turned elements often extended the entire length of the chest from the floor to the underside of the top; more expensive chests had four corner columns, but pieces could be purchased with two front corner posts and two matching turned feet at the rear.

The chest I’m building in this article is based on an antique Sheraton chest, but I took a few liberties in the building process. I substituted poplar for pine as the secondary wood; the antique was built in New England, so pine would have been a natural choice. I also removed full-length turned columns at the rear of the chest in favor of two feet that fit under the chest, and I switched the orientation of the backboards – the original had the back applied vertically.

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